Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 39 on Thursday and two days later, the immensely popular driver will make his 500th career start in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
The milestone start will be at Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the same track where Earnhardt made his first Cup start in 1999 at the age of 24.
Back then he drove a No. 8 Chevrolet owned by his father, the legendary seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed two years later in a crash at the Daytona 500.
Now Dale Jr., as everyone calls him, drives the No. 88 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports, where he's had less success than many expected when he joined the powerful NASCAR team in 2008.
Earnhardt has won only twice with Hendrick, in 2008 and last year, both times at Michigan International Speedway. He has 19 Cup victories overall through his first 499 starts.
This year the Kannapolis, N.C., native had a consistently strong regular season despite not winning, and he qualified for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff.
But his bid to win his first championship is fading. After four races in the 10-race Chase, Earnhardt is eighth in the standings, 54 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.
And Earnhardt has never won a race in the Cup series at the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval in 27 career starts.
Regardless, Earnhardt's popularity remains intact, which is obvious by the roar that goes up in the grandstands when he's introduced before each race.
At the start of the season, he was asked about being such a fan favorite.
"It's kind of overwhelming," he said. "I don't know that I really realize exactly what that means until it's way, way down the road. I'll look back on it finally, tell my grandkids, nephews, nieces about it, [and] see if they really dig it or not."
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